On Sunday, the Columbus Crew and New England Revolution face off for a chance to play in the MLS Cup final.
From a wide-open Eastern Conference, in which a number of teams have looked elite at various intervals, the Crew and Revolution have put it together at the right time.
Let’s take a look at some of the storylines and questions to follow in this game, which will be 3pm ET on ABC.
What’s at stake
Columbus has been one of the league’s better teams for much of the season. Once upon a time, they were the odds-on favorites to win the MLS is Back tournament, before Minnesota knocked them out. They spent the first part of the regular season shutting out everyone in their path, then suffered some injuries and faltered, falling out of the Supporters’ Shield race. They’re healthy now.
Coach Caleb Porter, an MLS Cup-winner in Portland, took over for Gregg Berhalter and has continued the emphasis on possession that Berhalter used to make them a consistent contender. They made aggressive moves in the offseason that fit their identity: they traded for Darlington Nagbe, an incredibly efficient possession midfielder and signed designated player No. 10 Lucas Zelarayan.
They also traded franchise centerpiece Wil Trapp, who had been the fulcrum of Berhalter’s systems. Trapp was weak defensively, and Nagbe could step in and fill a similar role at a higher level. With elite talent on defense (Jonathan Mensah, in particular) and the return from long-term injury of left back Milton Valenzuela, the Crew have improved on a team that had consistently been in the conversation.
The Revolution has been much less of a sure thing. In the second year of Bruce Arena, they were projected as a defense-first outfit. They’d be tough to beat, but not necessarily a top team. Their defense lived up to expectations in the regular season, but injuries to their top attackers (mainly Carles Gil) prevented their offense from reaching those same heights.
Like the Crew, they got healthy for the postseason. With an MLS legend as manager, a top defense, and a couple of elite attackers, they are well-built to succeed in the playoffs.
Will Columbus create chances?
The Crew have built themselves as a possession team. When they falter, it’s because they struggle to turn their possession into chances on goal. The key is getting playmaking from Nagbe, who can be prone to taking his foot off the gas. They will also need a big moment or two from Zelarayan. Gyasi Zardes can be trusted to get into the right spots, and he has been pretty good at finishing his chances.
Against the lockdown defense of Nashville, the Crew played 90 minutes of 0-0 soccer before scoring twice in extra time. Goalkeeper Eloy Room is questionable, and backup Andrew Tarbell has been mistake-prone in his MLS career. The Crew will want to avoid these thin margins.
Revolution rely on Gil
As it stands, Gil is in the conversation for MVP of the playoffs. He is the attacking fulcrum, and when he’s in the lineup, the Revs can win any game. His partner in attack, Gustavo Bou, has every ability to score a banger.
New England can be trusted to avoid mistakes on the back end. They have shown the ability to play multiple different styles of soccer, from purely defensive to pressing, and the game’s flow will stem from however Arena decides to approach the Crew. Their versatility should serve them well if the game has twists and turns. In the end, stars sometimes decide these playoff games, so Gil is the most important player.
WHERE TO BET MLS CUP IN THE US
In the US, you can legally bet on soccer in New Jersey, Indiana and Pennsylvania.